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 The Word From Rome

April 16, 2004
Vol. 3, No. 34

Word From Rome


“I have no problem admitting we may have to be more generous in some areas and that central authority has interfered too often . . . The important thing is that the question of unity remains present, and that cultural specificities can unfold their own effects. We don't always get the right balance.”

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

Ecumenism in Western Kansas; fuss over footwashing; Ad limina notes; guidelines for bishops; Ratzinger’s distrust of bureaucracies; more on the norms


If you believe what you read – including, I confess, from time to time in this column – you might conclude that the ecumenical movement is in crisis. Anglican-Catholic dialogue recently took a blow with the ordination of a gay Episcopal bishop, for example, while rumors of a Greek Catholic patriarchate in Ukraine have triggered another eruption in Orthodox-Catholic relations. Some fear that the ecumenical gains of the last 50 years are in jeopardy.

Here’s how I know that’s baloney: I’ve just been to Hill City, Kansas.

A Western Kansas farm town of 1,604, according to the 2000 census, Hill City is the home of my grandparents Raymond and Laura Frazier. (Grandpa is in the nursing home, Dawson’s Place, while grandma is still going strong at nearly 90). Local people are kind, generous, and hard-working, content to be a bit off the beaten track. This is not a laboratory for social experiment; it’s a small town where everyone knows everyone, where the relocation of Gwen’s, the lone restaurant open for breakfast and hence the number one choice for morning chat, represents major urban development. (Think I’m kidding about the scale of news? Here’s a typical headline from the April 7, 2004, weekly paper, the Hill City Times: “Barber’s retirement rates special mention”).

Hill City thus offers a bellwether for how average Americans, people who’ve never been on the avante garde of anything, think and feel. And here, on the buckle of the farm belt, the ecumenical movement is flourishing.

My wife and I spent Easter in Hill City. When we arrived, we learned that the Ministerial Alliance, an ecumenical coalition of the various Christian denominations in town, had pooled $1800 to rent the local cinema for free showings of “The Passion of the Christ,” open to anyone who wanted to come. For three nights, Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals and Lutherans sat shoulder by shoulder, then went out for coffee, pie, and conversation. When we visited, it was still the talk of the town.

This was not a one-off event. On April 9, the Ministerial Alliance held its annual Unity Service at the local Christian Church, a liturgy celebrating common Christian identity rooted in baptism. A similar event took place around the same time in a neighboring town, and Hill City’s Catholic pastor, Fr. Don McCarthy, cited the sermon given by the Methodist minister that day in his own Easter homily. The gesture seemed to encapsulate the close relationship among the town’s ministers. Hill City’s churches hold an annual picnic together, they sponsor a food pantry together, and they even run a vacation Bible school together, where the ministers take turns teaching Scripture to area children. The churches also pray for one another during Sunday services.

None of this may sound remarkable, but my grandmother tells tales of how some of her Protestant neighbors tried to block construction of a Catholic church in Hill City just 50 years ago. Today they pray together, attend one another’s picnics, their children marry one another, and they share their burdens with one another’s clergy. No one I met seems the least bit interested in rolling back the clock.

Seen from Rome and other centers of ecclesiastical energy, ecumenical crises may wax and wane, but the battle is long over in Hill City. That tells me it’s pretty much over, period. 

* * *

During Holy Week, controversy arose in the United States regarding the washing of women’s feet during Holy Thursday liturgies. In Atlanta, Archbishop John Donoghue instructed pastors that only men should be chosen; in Boston, Archbishop Sean O’Malley declined to wash women’s feet, though he did not order his parishes to follow suit.

An O’Malley spokesperson cited Vatican regulations.

“This is particular to Archbishop O'Malley, who throughout his time as a bishop has kept the tradition of washing the feet of men and who is adhering strictly to an instruction out of Rome to do so,” said Fr. Christopher Coyne.

In fact, there is no “instruction” from Rome, in the sense of a document that provides a clear “yes” or “no” as to whether women may take part. What we have instead is the text in the Roman Missal, the official book of rituals and prayers for the Mass. On the washing of feet, it says: “The men who have been chosen are led by the ministers to chairs prepared in a suitable place. Then the priest ... goes to each man. With the help of ministers, he pours water over each one's feet and dries them.”

The Latin term is vir, “man,” meaning a male.

Debate over whether this language excludes women is not new. In the mid-1980s, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua (then bishop of Pittsburgh) told his priests not to wash women’s feet. In 1987, however, the U.S. bishops’ Liturgy Committee came down in favor of including women:

“It has become customary in many places to invite both men and women to be participants in this rite in recognition of the service that should be given by all the faithful to the church and to the world,” the committee’s February 1987 newsletter said.

“While this variation may differ from the rubric, which mentions only men (vir selecti), it may nevertheless be said that the intention to emphasize service along with charity in the celebration of the rite is an understandable way of accentuating the evangelical command of the Lord, ‘who came to serve and not to be served’, that all members of the church must serve one another in love.”

In 1988, the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued an updated instruction on the feasts of Holy Week, which referred to the participation of “chosen men” in the foot-washing ceremony. The instruction did not, however, specifically rule out women, although the Holy See was undoubtedly aware of the debate.

Those opposed to the inclusion of women argue that because Holy Thursday marks the foundation of both the Eucharist and the ministerial priesthood, there is an intrinsic connection to holy orders. (In some Catholic cultures, for example, it is customary to wish priests “happy anniversary” on Holy Thursday, reflecting this association). Involving women in the foot-washing rite, from this point of view, would be in tension with the male-only character of the priesthood. On the other hand, supporters of the practice insist that the symbolism of washing feet is primarily about Christ’s call to humble service, something not restricted by gender.

Unless and until there is a specific ruling from the Holy See, one can expect individual bishops and pastors to make their own calls. A Vatican source told NCR April 14 that given the clear meaning of the Latin text, if there were to be an official response, it would almost certainly support limiting participation to males.

A footnote: Inclusion of women is not just American practice. Jesuit Fr. Keith Pecklers, a professor of liturgy at Rome’s Gregorian University, said he has seen women included in the Holy Thursday rites in locales as disparate as Italy, Spain, and the Philippines. Pecklers also told NCR April 13 that it is “common practice” in the Anglo-Saxon world, including the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada.

 * * *

Over the next nine months, the entire U.S. Catholic hierarchy will be coming through Rome, in fourteen groups, for their every-five-year ad limina visits to the pope and the Roman Curia. This cycle takes on special significance, coming on the heels of the sexual abuse crisis.

On April 2, the first group of American bishops met John Paul, and he made it clear what he intends to talk about in these visits: the bishops themselves.

“In the coming months, I would like to engage you and your brother bishops in a series of reflections on the exercise of the episcopal office in the light of the threefold munus by which the bishop, through sacramental ordination, is conformed to Jesus Christ, priest, prophet and king,” the pope told the bishops of the provinces of Miami and Atlanta.

“It is my hope that a consistent reflection on the gift and mystery entrusted to us will contribute to the fulfillment of your ministry as heralds of the Gospel and to the renewal of the Church in the United States,” John Paul said.

The next set of Americans will be in Rome April 25 – May 1, with 12 more groups to follow between now and December.

The choice to focus on the episcopacy is not accidental. For one thing, it was the subject of John Paul’s most recent apostolic exhortation, Pastores Gregis, based on the October 2001 Synod of Bishops.

More fundamentally, however, it is conventional wisdom in the Holy See that the heart of the American crisis lies in the episcopacy. Many in Rome believe that American bishops failed for more than a decade to take advantage of the canonical tools at their disposal to discipline wayward priests. That failure, they believe, is symptomatic of a deeper loss of nerve, with too many bishops hesitant to assert their full authority. Doctrinal dissent, moral laxity in the clergy, liturgical abuses … all, seen from Rome, are signs of an episcopacy that, despite its many assets, needs a wake-up call.

This does not mean the lone quality the Vatican is looking for in an American bishop these days is willingness to bring the hammer down. John Paul’s vision of the episcopal office, which he will lay out in the coming months, is more complex.

There’s no doubt, however, that the American crisis has strengthened convictions in Vatican corridors about the need for “strong bishops.” (The appointments of Allen Vigneron to Oakland and Raymond Burke to St. Louis, to take two examples, can be understood in this light.)

The current climate of opinion in the United States – with many laity clamoring for greater transparency, accountability, and “democratic” governance – suggests the potential for a growing clash of visions between American Catholics and their Roman-appointed shepherds, with unforeseeable consequences.

Anyone interested in American Catholicism would thus do well to pay attention to what John Paul has to say when the bishops come to town.

* * *

We don’t know yet what guidance the pope intends to give, but one way to get an idea is to examine the Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops published in February 2004 by the Congregation for Bishops, under Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re. This 300-page document, so far released only in Italian, amounts to a detailed job description for a Roman Catholic bishop.

Its bottom line: a bishop should consult widely, listen attentively, and strive always to build consensus. Yet this isn’t a democracy – it is the bishop, and the bishop alone, who in theology and in law must call the shots. The document stresses the personal nature of the bishop’s responsibility, insisting that it cannot be delegated to advisors, collaborators, or episcopal conferences.

Key points from the Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops:


            • “The bishop is called to promote the participation of the faithful in the life of the church, striving to foster the necessary collaboration. He must carry out opportune consultations of competent persons, and listen, according to the prescriptions of law, to the various organisms that the diocese has to confront human, social and legal problems that often create serious difficulties. In this way the bishop will be able to grasp the petitions and the exigencies present in the portion of the People of God that has been entrusted to him. The bishop, however, conscious of being pastor of the particular church, as well as a sign of unity, will avoid playing a role of mere moderation among the various councils and other pastoral realities, but will act according to his personal rights and duties of governance that oblige him to decide personally in truth and conscience, and not on the basis of the numerical weight of councilors, except obviously for cases in which the law requires the bishop to have the consensus of a college or a group of persons. The responsibility to govern the diocese weighs on the shoulders of the bishop.” (p. 171)

Lay Participation

            • “The ecclesiology of communion obligates the bishop to promote the participation of all the members of the Christian people in the one mission of the church. … The baptized enjoy a just liberty of opinion and of action in things that are not essential to the common good. In governing the diocese, the bishop will voluntarily recognize and respect this healthy pluralism of responsibility and this just liberty, both of persons and of associations.” (p. 67)

            • “Laity may be called to collaborate with pastors, according to their conditions, in various ambits: 1) in the exercise of liturgical functions; 2) in participation in the diocesan structures and pastoral activity; 3) in incorporation in the associations erected by ecclesiastical authority; 4) and, singularly, in the work of diocesan and parochial catechesis. All these forms of lay participation are not only possible, but necessary. However, he must avoid that the faithful have a preponderant interest in ecclesiastical services and functions, aside from special vocations, so as not to distance themselves from the secular realm. Professional, social, economic, cultural and political [spheres] are the ambits of their specific responsibility, in which their apostolic action is irreplaceable.” (p. 120)


            • A bishop “must be, and appear to be, poor. … [He will] seek to avoid anything that in any way could distance himself from the poor … and will eliminate any shadow of vanity.” (p. 55)


            • “In cases in which situations of scandal occur, especially on the part of ministers of the church, the bishop must be strong and decisive, just and serene in his interventions. In these deplorable cases, the bishop is obliged to intervene promptly, according to the established canonical norms, both for the spiritual good of the persons involved, as well as for the reparation of the scandal and the protection and help of the victims.” (p. 55)

Bishops’ Conferences

             • Bishops should be active members of their national episcopal conferences. At the same time, however, these bodies must not obscure the “personal responsibility of each bishop in relation to the universal church and to the particular church entrusted to him.”  (p. 31)

 * * *

 Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, for decades the great white hope of the Catholic Church’s liberal wing to become the next pope, broke a long public silence since his retirement from Milan with a Wednesday, April 7, interview in the Italian newspaper Il Tempo. He gave the interview to journalist Giuseppe De Carli, the dean of Vatican coverage on RAI, the main Italian public TV network.

In the interview, Martini revived a familiar theme: collegiality, meaning more participative and decentralized governance in the Catholic church. Martini proposed convoking occasional synods, representative of the world’s bishops, with real decision-making authority, as was the custom in the early church. Martini also suggested that presidents of bishops’ conferences could join the cardinals in electing future popes.

Martini’s argument highlights the synods and councils of the early Christian centuries, to which proponents of collegiality often appeal in order to argue that today’s “imperial papacy” is a distortion of tradition.

Readers seeking a primer on the topic could do no better than Jesuit Fr. Norman Tanner’s new little book, Was the Church Too Democratic? Councils, Collegiality and the Church’s Future (Dharmaram Publications, 2003). Tanner is an English Jesuit church historian who teaches at Rome’s Gregorian University.

In a nutshell, Tanner’s argument is that the church’s tradition of councils, both ecumenical and regional, amounts to the oldest form of representative assembly in the world, long pre-dating the Althing of Iceland (which first met in 930) or the British Parliament (1257). The fact that councils have fallen into disuse, Tanner believes, explains in part why the church has struggled to respond creatively to social upheavals such as the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the rampant secularism and relativism of the 20th century.

Since most of the church’s early ecumenical councils took place outside Europe, Tanner envisions future councils in places such as Africa and Asia. And since many of those early councils were convoked and ruled over by lay monarchs, Tanner suggests that in future councils lay people could play integral roles.

Tanner, like Martini, is not bucking for a “Vatican III” – he believes the results of Vatican II still have to be assimilated. Instead, he urges more conciliarism at other levels of church life, drawing on the “best practices” of secular democracies.

“Earlier the church had less fear of other institutions,” Tanner writes. “It was readier to adopt for itself the good elements in them, to use and then to improve upon them, to give a lead in society rather than to follow reluctantly or to distance itself unnecessarily.”

Tanner’s short book is an excellent explication of the point of view implicit in Martini’s Il Tempo interview.

 * * *

Speaking of decentralization, several media outlets asked me to comment recently on remarks made by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to reporters covering the funeral of Austria’s late Cardinal Franz König. In what struck many as an uncharacteristic flourish, Ratzinger seemed to criticize Roman centralism.

“I have no problem admitting we may have to be more generous in some areas and that central authority has interfered too often,” Ratzinger said. “I have no problem considering where we could have less centralism and more decentralization. There is no absolute ban from the Holy See against adjusting this. The important thing is that the question of unity remains present, and that cultural specificities can unfold their own effects. We don't always get the right balance.”

Given that König had once criticized Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for being too quick to clamp down on theologians, the remarks seemed especially poignant, and some observers wondered if we were seeing a “mellowing” of Ratzinger’s views – a sort of “Lion in Winter” phenomenon.

In truth, however, the comments are not terribly surprising. Ratzinger is a classic conservative, with a natural distrust of bureaucracies. He believes in a strong papacy, certainly, as a theological concept – but that does not automatically translate into support for micro-management in ecclesiastical government.

In a 1996 interview with German journalist Peter Seewald that became the book Salt of the Earth, Ratzinger expressed these misgivings.

“The great churches of the Christian countries are perhaps also suffering on account of their own over-institutionalization,” Ratzinger said. “The living simplicity of the faith has been lost to view in this situation. Being a Christian means simply belonging to a large apparatus and knowing in one way or another that there are countless moral prescriptions and difficult dogmas...The flame that really enkindles can't, you might say, burn through because of the excess of ash covering it.”

Then, bluntly: “I have said very often that I think we have too much bureaucracy.”

Hence Ratzinger’s comments in Vienna serve as a reminder that it’s a mistake to frame the argument over collegiality as one that breaks exclusively between left and right. There can be a “conservative” argument for decentralization, and a “progressive” case for strong central authority.

 * * *

Last week I quoted Franciscan Fr. David Jaeger on the standoff between the Holy See and the Israeli government. The multi-talented Jaeger is also, however, a professor of canon law at Rome’s Antonianum. A few weeks ago, he sent along a set of reactions to a defense of the American bishops’ sex abuse norms I had excerpted, written by an American involved in drafting those norms.

Because they raise arguments that are certain to surface in negotiations between the American bishops and the Holy See over renewal of the recognitio for the norms, I reproduce below some of Jaeger’s reactions.

• The American expert wrote that continuation in ministry is not a matter of natural justice similar to the deprivation of life or liberty.

Jaeger: “Is continuation in ministry something peripheral or accidental? Should natural justice apply only to capital cases or those leading to actual incarceration? Should it not apply to something as absolutely central to a person’s very identity as being in Holy Orders?”

• The American wrote that U.S. bishops had not canonically prosecuted abuser priests because they lacked competence to stand trial, what canon law calls “imputability.”

Jaeger: “Whatever pedophilia is, it is not a ‘mental illness’ that removes imputability. Nor is there need to assume that all offending priests were affected by this disorder. The medicalization of crime by superiors (‘first step, off to counseling or mental health center’) is itself at the root of much of the trouble, the refusal to acknowledge that there is sin and there is crime, not just ‘illness.’’

• The American wrote that U.S. bishops had not conducted canonical trials against abuser priests in the 1980s and 1990s in part because they worried Rome would reverse their rulings on procedural grounds.

Jaeger: “It is a wholly gratuitous insult to the Roman Curia to assume in advance that any conviction would necessarily, or even most probably, be overturned. … If the trial were conducted properly, there would be no procedural errors.  Absolutely nothing can excuse the failure of superiors to use in timely fashion the tools canon law put at their disposal, just as nothing could excuse an analogous failure by secular law enforcement and prosecutors ...”

The American wrote that the right to confront one’s accuser has never been a core element of procedural justice.

Jaeger: “The right to confront one's accuser is a fundamental requirement of justice. If it was not always observed in the past, this is no reason to bypass it in the present or in the future.”

            • The American wrote that a statute of limitations is also not a core matter of due process.

            Jaeger:  “Our anonymous friend totally misses the point. … It is the retroactive lifting of the statute of limitations that offends natural justice. … Leges respiciunt futura, non praeterita (“laws regard the future, not the past”), especially penal laws, is an absolutely fundamental rule of law and justice.”

            • The American wrote that although the sex abuse norms do not allow judicial discretion, since they make removal from ministry automatic for even one act of abuse, other penalties in canon law such as automatic excommunication work the same way.

Jaeger: “In all charity, this shows the most abysmal ignorance of the fundamentals of canon law. Excommunication is a ‘medicinal’ penalty. Its purpose is to call the offender to conversion, and it only lasts as long as the offender has not repented. Once the offender has repented, and this has been verified by the competent authority, the penalty must be lifted. It is the opposite of ‘zero tolerance.’”

Jaeger concludes:

 “Does this mean that there is no need for a profound rethinking of criminal law in the church? No. But it should be done properly, openly, through legislation, not piecemeal through secret exceptions, and with attention both to canonical tradition and to the requirements of natural justice (which is at root divine law, no less than the revealed positive divine law).

“One important point should be the advisability (raised by your correspondent, and I give him credit, though not for the way he raised it) of ‘canonizing’ convictions in civil court. Since canonical legislation should be universal, care should be taken to specify the [civil] legal systems whose decisions should be so ‘canonized’ (i.e. accepted as findings of fact for the purposes of the canonical legal order). A canon to this effect could lay down that, in countries certified from time to time, a finding of fact in civil court is to be accepted as binding by the ecclesiastical court, unless it is manifestly unjust. …

“But now we are getting into the serious conversation that ought to take place, a conversation very far from street justice, lynch mob justice, frontier justice.... hang’em high justice.”

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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